“If I’d gotten this role some years back, I probably couldn’t have done it,” says Viggo Mortensen. Perhaps if he’d been less mature, the 46-year-old New York native would have overplayed the quiet part of small-town diner manager Tom Stall in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. Instead, Mortensen played two parts at once—a simple family man with a set of barely tamped-down killer instincts and urges. In maintaining that balance, Mortensen says he tried “to give a very detailed performance.” You see it most in his placid poise behind the diner’s counter, during the still seconds before he lashes out. “A lot of people don’t trust those details to come through, but I’ve always believed that the camera and the audience can see a lot more than a lot of directors—and even actors—give them credit for.”
Based on everything we know about the history of war, we should have prepared ourselves to wait decades for a clear-eyed, intellectually honest account of the Iraq debacle. But in The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, George Packer, who was an initial supporter of the invasion, delivered such a narrative way ahead of schedule. This in medias res arrival makes the book all the more powerful—it channels the reader’s inchoate anger at events into a sharp critique. Packer weaves sensitive political history and Technicolor on-the-ground reportage. Most poignantly, he manages to conjure the best intentions that culminated in this tragedy. They were, after all, his original intentions, too.
Joan Snyder is a painter who reflects her time while remaining irreducibly herself. Now 65, she responded in a forceful way not only to the various artistic styles of the postwar period, from Abstract Expressionism to minimalism, but also to the era’s political passions—notably feminism and the dream of social justice. Somehow, though, she never succumbed to pastiche, politics, or fashion. Her show at the Jewish Museum this year was instead the layered story of a rich private life. Snyder’s art, when confessional, is never obvious. The paintings are visceral but subtle. They’re made of glimpses. They open a lush painterly window in which many New Yorkers—men as well as women—can see themselves.
Will Arnett and Amy Poehler
He stars on a show (Arrested Development) that’s about to be canceled, and she’s part of a creaky institution (SNL) that’s not exactly at the height of its acclaim. So what are they doing here? How about this: They’re funny. Really funny. (Plus they’re married. To each other.) “We used to have an expression,” says Arnett. “We’d call something L.A. funny”—meaning just barely good enough. TV is reliably L.A. funny. But Arnett (who, as the arrogant, petulant magician Gob Bluth, is an Emmy waiting to happen) and Poehler (who’s not only SNL’s bright beacon but still performs nearly every Sunday at her young-comic-grooming alma mater, the Upright Citizens Brigade—“It’s the closest thing I have to going to church”) gave TV a different flavor this year. Together, they showed the country what New York funny is all about.
Stephen Sondheim and Adam Guettel
For the first time in a long while, we can dispense with the notion that the quality Broadway musical is dead. How could it be in a year when the master and a pupil both filled theaters and delighted critics? Stephen Sondheim—who not so long ago couldn’t find a producer for Bounce—saw a glorious reception for a revival of Sweeney Todd. Meanwhile, The Light in the Piazza shone bright for its young composer, Adam Guettel. “It was an incredible year,” he says. “A lot of pending questions about my legitimacy were answered.” And where Sondheim collaborated with Richard Rodgers, Guettel—Rodgers’s grandson—acknowledges a debt to Sondheim. He fell in love at age 13, when the first whistle blew in Harold Prince’s 1979 Sweeney production. “Many of us my age and younger owe that to Steve,” says Guettel, whose next project is an adaptation of The Princess Bride. “The courage to try.”
The Hold Steady
The Hold Steady may look like librarians, but on their second album, Separation Sunday, they rock with debauched grandeur. And in singer Craig Finn they have a lyricist on par with Springsteen or Reed; his tales star skeezy street hustlers with names like Charlemagne. Finn moved from Minneapolis five years ago and still sets his funny, observational narratives there, but he sees the same types around his Williamsburg home. “They may look more urban,” Finn says, “but the personality’s the same—the guy trying to get you to buy him a drink.” He promises to write about New York soon. “I’m a little sheepish about it. I’m scared of getting it wrong.”
Rudolf Bing may have been wittier and Edward Johnson suaver, but as Metropolitan Opera general managers go, no one has been tougher than Joe Volpe. When he took over in 1990, the Met had been a chaotically run mess for more than fifteen years. The buck stopped nowhere. Suddenly it did with Volpe, and if anyone doubted his authority at first, that ceased after he fired the combative diva Kathleen Battle for “unprofessional actions” in 1994. Under Volpe, the roster of stars has grown, and the Met’s day-to-day functioning remains the envy of opera houses the world over. He wraps his final season in May (and cedes the job to Peter Gelb in August), and then—well, “some people say I’m retiring,” he said recently. “Heaven forbid. I would never retire.”